Questions you may be Asking During COVID-19

Posted: March 31, 2020

Dana Cruikshank

At this point in the conversation surrounding COVID-19, the word “unprecedented” has been overused, yet it remains one of the best words to describe the ever-evolving global pandemic. There is truly no rulebook for how institutions should manage such a unique crisis. Beyond the obvious short-term implications we are all facing – learning to work from home, changing up our daily rhythms, focusing on protecting our loved ones and ourselves – it’s impossible not to let your mind drift to the long-term impacts this crisis will have on your institution.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself lying awake, turning over questions as each new shelter-in-place and stay-at-home warning is announced.

How will this impact our fall applications? How will it impact enrollments? And you may have even found yourself asking, will it even be possible to bring students back to campus in the fall? Most importantly, you’re probably asking the question on the top of every educator’s mind: How can we best serve our students in the midst of this crisis?

At VisionPoint, it always has and always will be our goal to be an in-the-trenches partner for our clients. Through recessions, elections, changes in the higher ed landscape, and yes, even COVID-19, we are committed to standing alongside our client partners to weather the storms. We believe the best way to handle the stress from important questions is to stay focused on some productive recommendations to address those long-term unknowns.

Here are a few concrete questions to help you get a better handle on this fast-changing situation:

Q. What can I do right now? 

A. Communicate with prospects. 

No matter how steeped in crisis management theory, the crisis moment can make you feel like your hands are tied. There are too many loose ends, too many students, not enough time, and not enough resources. But the best thing you can do today (and every day following!) is to keep communicating.

Students and their influencers understand the position you’re in because many of them are in similar positions, facing a future of unknowns. However, radio silence from your institution will serve no one. This is an opportunity to demonstrate to those students who your institution is and what you stand for. We highly recommend that you do not pause lead nurturing emails or contact. 

Similarly, many standardized testing centers and sessions are being canceled, which can cause your prospects to fear whether they will be unable to apply. If your institution is providing a program that waives the requirement of those tests, let your prospects know. If any deadlines are changing, tell your prospective students. Remember, a few words of guidance – or the lack thereof – could make or break their decision. We recommend putting a strategy in place to alert prospective students regularly of evolving deadlines and requirements – especially if your prospects are already in your lead nurturing funnel. 

Instead of shying away from communication, prioritize it. Answer the questions you can, be honest about the questions you can’t, and leverage this as a time to begin building a warm, cooperative relationship of understanding with your prospects.

Q. What do we need to change? 

A. Position on-campus life differently.  

While COVID-19 will not be around forever, the impact of distance learning will have a lasting impact on how students view the college experience. Assuming that normal on-campus operations resume in the fall, students will have a different understanding of the need and importance of being physically present on their institution’s campus. Institutions should ensure they communicate and position the distinct advantages of an on-campus experience. Prioritize making a strong case regarding the value of your institution’s on-campus experience, but accept the fact that it may take several semesters to recover the student numbers you previously enjoyed. However, by communicating the value of your on-campus experience both overtly and implicitly, your institution can work to bring back as many on-campus students as possible – a strong source for increasing revenue.

Q. What should our recruitment strategy look like? 

A. Start going virtual. 

Traditional recruiting tactics may be off the table for now, but this is a great opportunity for testing new online and digital methods. From virtual tours to online information sessions, we are already trying out some of these new virtual marketing tactics with our clients. And as always in higher ed marketing, you have the opportunity to differentiate your unique virtual recruitment efforts and offerings from those of your competitors.  

Q. What can we do to prepare for the future? 

A. Practice retention marketing. 

While it’s looking less and less likely that our world of higher education will snap back to its exact state once the spread of the pandemic begins to slow, we recommend you begin considering new tactics you will need to take in response. One such tactic we recommend is for institutions to begin thinking about how they can leverage a retention marketing plan for your existing students that combines your marketing and communications efforts with unified messaging to ensure that everyone who went online this spring returns next term. The last thing any institution wants in a time of uncertain enrollments is to actually lose students who are already enrolled and/or attending. 

Q. What do we do when this is all over? 

A. Accelerate your plan.

One thing we know about all pandemics – they eventually come to an end. And COVID-19 will be no different. While the exact timeline is uncertain, we can be sure that our world will emerge sooner or later from the shadow of this virus. However, that doesn’t mean that the downturn of COVID-19 will mean all is back to normal for your school. Most institutions have already been anticipating tougher years ahead given the shifting demographics and shrinking student pools that will come to a head in a few years. This crisis, particularly if it leads to a full-blown recession, may accelerate those trends. 

While it can feel impossible to think about anything besides the pandemic right now, we encourage you to begin thinking beyond the quarantine. Consider that the timeline is still unknown as to when we’ll be “in the clear,” so to speak. That’s why we strongly recommend developing an array of marketing plans based on different timeline projections for a COVID-19 all-clear: from May to August and beyond.

Once your institution has a solid plan for summer and fall, we recommend promoting that your institution is back in business, as broadly as possible. Your marketing efforts won’t end because you managed to get through the COVID-19 crisis; quite the contrary, in many ways they’ll just be getting started. And counterintuitive as it may seem, this might just be the perfect time to make progress in establishing a more sophisticated long-term marketing strategy, plan, and full-funnel infrastructure, ensuring you’re poised for the post-pandemic challenges and opportunities ahead.

VisionPoint Marketing has extensive experience in higher education consulting and developing integrated marketing plans for higher ed organizations. If you have questions or want to start a conversation about how we can help – especially in terms of any of the tactical recommendations in this article – please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed and find solutions in the face of every crisis and challenge.